By Kevin Eckstrom
c. 2011 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) The Saudi Arabian embassy on Friday (June 24) denied as "completely false" reports that U.S. Jews would not be able to travel to Saudi Arabia under Delta Air Line's planned partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines.
U.S. Jewish groups had criticized Delta for next year's planned addition of the Saudi airline to the SkyTeam network, a 14-member Amsterdam-based global alliance of air carriers.
Some Jews and conservative activists were concerned that the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islamic law would prevent Jews from traveling to Saudi Arabia from the U.S., and criticized Delta for the partnership set to launch in 2012.
"Rumors being circulated via the Internet regarding passenger flight restrictions on Saudi Arabian Airlines are completely false," the embassy statement said. "The government of Saudi Arabia does not deny visas to U.S. citizens based on their religion."
Saudi officials told CNN that the kingdom does not grant visas to holders of Israeli passports because it does not recognize Israel, and will not deny entry visas to Americans simply because of an Israeli stamp on a U.S. passport.
In a statement on Thursday, Delta indicated its agreement with the Saudi airline would be limited: no selling Delta seats on a different airline, or other reciprocal benefit like sharing frequent flier miles.
"Delta Air Lines does not discriminate nor do we condone discrimination against any of our customers in regards to age, race, nationality, religion or gender," the Delta statement said.
At the same time, however, Delta did not deny concerns about Jews' or Israelis' ability to travel to Saudi Arabia.
"It's important to realize that visa requirements to enter any country are dictated by that nation's government, not the airlines, and they apply to anyone entering the country regardless of whether it's by plane, bus or train," a Delta spokesman wrote on the company's blog.
The conservative American Center for Law and Justice, founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, had said it was investigating concerns that the deal would restrict Americans' religious expression when traveling on Delta or connecting to the Saudi airline.
"The very idea that there is a common carrier airline service that would deny an American citizen in America access to their services because they are Jewish or have religious items such as a yarmulke, a cross or a priestly collar, is deeply disturbing," said Colby M. May, senior counsel with ACLJ.
U.S. and international Jewish groups criticized Delta for entering into a partnership with the Saudi airline.
"Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, should be strongly condemned for its despicable discrimination against Jews," said Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the New York-based American Jewish Committee, on Thursday.
"For an American company, our nation's values should trump narrow business interests. Delta should be the first to reject Saudi Airlines as a SkyTeam member."
In a Friday letter to Delta CEO Richard H. Anderson, the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman warned the airline about being a complicit partner in the kingdom's strict version of Islamic law, which prohibits non-Islamic articles of faith such as Bibles or a Jewish yarmulke.
"We expect Delta, and any other American airline which flies to Riyadh or partners with an airline that flies there, to ensure that its passengers -- whatever their faith -- not be discriminated against," Foxman said, "and that no American airline in any way enable, or facilitate this discrimination, whatever the regulations of Saudi Arabia."
The original Religion News Service report is here.